Would it be the incumbent, Cersei Lannister, a despot to be sure but made so perhaps by virtue of being a woman in a man’s world, and thus having to outplay the men at their own game?
Or would it be Tyrion Lannister, or Sansa Stark, or perhaps even both?
In the 73rd and final episode, that question was finally resolved in a manner befitting the anti-war and anti-despot themes of this most warfare- and despot-driven series. Neither might nor right would determine the succession, but rather a vote. What’s more, there would be no Iron Throne for anyone to sit on.
It was the ultimate triumph of politics over force, of the will of the people (a council comprising 13 of them, at least) over contested bloodlines.
Dany was murdered by her lover/nephew/loyal subject Jon, because he believed that was the only way to prevent further carnage. Her dragon had flown off to who knows where, but only after turning his fiery breath on the Iron Throne in rage at his mistress’s fate, melting it to a pool of molten metal. All that bloodshed, and for what?
The council of representatives of what remained of the so-called Great Houses of Westeros convened in the giant dragon pit of what remained of King’s Landing to decide the fate of Jon Snow, now a prisoner, and Tyrion, accused of treason for inciting this murder.
Some wanted Jon executed, but Arya threatened to slit their throats.
«Friends, please, we’ve been cutting each other’s throats long enough,» interjected Ser Davos Seaworth, smuggler by trade, politician by instinct. «We need to find a better way.»
The council was hamstrung because there was no ruler. So choose one, urged Tyrion.
«Why just us,» wondered Samwell Tarly. «Maybe the decision about what’s best for everyone should be left to, well, everyone.»
The idea of full suffrage, though, was a conceptual leap too far. «Maybe we should give the dogs a vote as well,» said one of the wise men. «I’ll ask my horse,» guffawed another, seemingly referencing some of the more hysterical material from the No side of the 2017 same-sex plebiscite.
In the end, Tyrion proposed Brandon Stark, in a wheelchair since being pushed out of a window by Jaime Lannister in the very first episode, but rewarded for his pains with a range of paranormal abilities that made him wise and dispassionate, if somewhat lacking in empathy. A vote followed, and Bran the Broken was the elected ruler of the Six Kingdoms (Sansa opted to keep the North aligned but free). The fact he is unable to sire children who might inherit the throne only made the choice more perfect.
There will of course be many among the show’s latterly disaffected fans who protest at this turn of events. There will be those who claim it is a betrayal of the literal cut and thrust of the series, and of the narrative and the world created by George R.R. Martin. But it absolutely makes sense.
Politics has always been at the heart of Game of Thrones. Mostly it has played out as war by other means, an expression of ruthless personal ambition. But the characters who have commanded most sympathy are those who have sought an end beyond themselves. Dany’s crusade of liberation, until it became just another form of oppression; Jon’s self-sacrifice so that all might live free; Tyrion’s gradual realisation that public service was an even greater calling than the bottle or the brothel.
None exemplified this notion of a public mission played out through political game playing more than Varys. The eunuch and one-time master of whisperers appeared for so long to represent nothing so much as the self-interest of the political elite.
Like Petyr Baelish, he appeared to be a master manipulator willing to switch sides and principles in a moment in order to further his own career and interests. He was, perhaps, the personification of everything disaffected voters in the Western democracies have come to feel about their representatives and their enablers.
But in the fourth episode of the final season, Varys finally revealed his true ambitions, and they were genuinely shocking: he wanted real democracy.
No matter which ruler he had served he always remained loyal to The Realm, he told Tyrion. By that he meant «the millions of people, many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne. We don’t know their names but they’re just as real as you and I. They deserve to live, they deserve food for their children. I will act in their interest no matter the personal cost.»
It was the purest expression yet of the show’s underlying impulse.
Ultimately, Varys paid the highest price of all – his life. But in sowing the seed of that ideal in the mind of Tyrion, who then sowed it in the collective mind of the council, who then opted finally to «break the wheel» of inherited power in favour of something at least partway along the road to democracy, he got his wish.
In dramatic terms, it may have resolved itself with something like indecent haste. But thematically, it made perfect sense.
Warfare and bloodshed may have provided many of the thrills across the 73 episodes of Game of Thrones, but there was never any real doubt that politics would win in the end.
Karl is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.